Are commercials bad for kids?

Advertising deconstructed.
Dec. 20 2004 1:39 PM

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Are commercials really bad for kids?

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There's been lots of hubbub lately over the ethics of marketing to children. Last month there was a New York Times Magazine cover story, and the past year saw two new books on the matter— Consuming Kids by Susan Linn and Born to Buy by Juliet B. Schor. The gist of all this stuff: Kids' ads have grown more ruthless and pervasive, posing grave danger to defenseless little children. But is this perception accurate? Are the defenseless little children really in peril? The moment seemed ripe for an Ad Report Card investigation.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Rather than talk to a child-raising expert, a child psychologist, or an actual child—I don't have one of my own, and the ones I see on the street seem sort of dopey and not all that quotable—I decided I'd head straight for the source: the ads themselves. I woke up at 7:30 one Saturday morning, poured myself a giant cup of sugary cola, and watched cartoons till my eyes melted. (I did nod off once or twice. 7:30 is wicked early! How did I pull this off as a tyke? I guess I was drinking much less then. …) I also endured a few weekday afternoon blocks of Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network—the better to emulate the lonely, TV-centric life of the latchkey kid.

My findings:

Some things haven't changed since I was little. For one, the toys are the same: remote control cars, dolls that wet themselves, elaborate sets peopled with tiny action figures (pirate ships, castles, etc.). Even the brands are familiar: Connect Four, My Little Pony, Lego, Barbie, Care Bears. I was pleased to see they still make Socker Boppers, which are big, inflatable mittens that you punch your friends in the head with.

A few toys did feel new. For instance, there's this thing called Tokyo Catz. I'm not quite sure what it is, but it seems to involve a bunch of slutty cats who tart themselves up like dirty cat whores. Fun game!

As for the ads themselves, they weren't radically different either. The templates haven't evolved much, though the pace is faster and the computer graphics have improved. In the ads for the elaborate pirate ships, the kids still use figurines as props in careful, earnest narratives. (In real life, I recall growing immediately bored with this sort of toy. My friends and I would quickly resort to throwing the figurines at each other. Then we'd dare ourselves to eat whole jars of mustard.)

The ads have the same troubling sociological implications, too. Parents are rarely a presence at all (when they do show up, they're objects of ridicule). Ads for boy stuff all take place in back yards, while ads for girl stuff all take place in pink bedrooms. And predictably, whenever a spot shows a bunch of multicultural kids, it's almost always the white boys who act as protagonists and spokesmen.

But none of this surprised me. It certainly didn't seem like the sky was falling. When I phoned Susan Linn (author of the alarmist Consuming Kids) to chat about what I'd seen, she was extremely gracious as I called her book naïve and doubted its prophecy of doom (I think I actually used the words "the sky is falling" at one point). My basic theme was: Hey, look at me, I watched buttloads of television when I was a kid and I turned out just fine. Her basic retort was: Those ads may well have done you harm (she put this gently, which I appreciated), and besides, kids today face far more insidious stuff. (Money quote: "It's like comparing a BB gun to a smart bomb.")

By the time we were done, she'd won me over … a little. Not on her point that things are worse now (I don't think they are, for the most part), but rather on her point that television may have done me more harm than I realize. I think she's right that as kids, our personalities (and frontal cortexes) are not fully formed yet, so the ads we get assaulted with may indeed have a real effect—heightening our insecurities and our acquisitiveness. I also think it's a mistake to trust in free markets when it comes to children. Now let's not get crazy—I'm nowhere near calling for a ban on all preadolescent marketing (as Linn advocates, and as some foreign governments have done). But it might be time to step back and ponder some guidelines. As Linn points out, preschoolers can't even differentiate between the programming and the commercials. Kids under 8 don't understand the idea that ads have persuasive intent.

Besides, a few of the Saturday morning spots really did raise my hackles. One ad—for the Conair Quick Bead—shows a preteen girl looking in the mirror and not liking what she sees. "Before you go out, you might want to work on your hair," says the voice-over. Perhaps worse was a spot for Chef Boyardee, in which a mom and daughter shop at the supermarket. Mom says no when the girl asks for Chef Boyardee. But the can, under its own power, somehow rolls out to the parking lot, follows their car down the road to their house, and rolls across the living room floor until it bumps the girl's leg. This seems pretty clearly designed to undermine mom's authority. No means no, little girl!

But again, this sort of evil-doing existed in my day, too. The one thing I saw that's profoundly different for modern kids—and perhaps the thing we should be most concerned about—is that the majority of the ads during kids' shows are not for toys (or food, or hair beads) at all. They are for media products. New movie releases (Lemony Snicket is advertised endlessly). DVDs (Princess Diaries 2, ditto). Video games. Video game systems. A faux PDA called "Friendchips" that lets little girls share secret digital messages. And, most astonishingly, Mattel's "Juice Box": a personal media player that plays MP3s and short videos (such as cartoons), and is targeted at 9- to 12-year-olds.

In the end, the real Saturday morning revelation for me was that—based on the balance of these ads—kids would much rather be entertained than play with a bunch of toys. We're raising a generation of media addicts. Scopophiliacs. Inert eyeballers of movies, DVDs, and whatever's playing on the Juice Box. Most of this stuff requires little effort, initiative, or imagination.

I bet kids today still get bored, though, and end up just throwing DVDs at each other. Remember, kids, the mustard jar's always there for you.

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